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NEWS | Dec. 16, 2014

Courage, purity and justice

By Lt. Col. Ray Clydesdale, MC, SFS 628th Aerospace Medicine Squadron

There's a famously hilarious scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) where Sir Bedevere is trying to teach the peasants how to determine, scientifically, if someone is a witch.  Witches, of course, must be burned, so therefore they must be made out of wood ... and we all know that wood floats.  So he eventually asks the peasants, "What else floats?" The peasants all begin to shout out answers like, "Bread.  Apples.  Very small rocks.  Cider.  Gravy.  Cherries.  Mud.  Churches.  Lead!  Lead!  A duck." 

As an eighth-grader, I thought this was the funniest thing I had ever heard.  I probably watched the movie 50 times with my friends. We would quote lines from the movie over and over and over.  In fact, I put one of the quotes in my high-school year book as a senior.

Flash forward more than 20 years later and I sit down to watch the movie that I hadn't watched for a few decades. I soon realized much to my horror, that I had gotten the movie quote wrong in my high-school year book.  I quoted "Little Tiny Pebbles" when the real quote was "Very Small Rocks."  I didn't get a single word right!
Certainly a funny anecdote, but I began to wonder about other things I assumed that I knew "all along."

Symbols are important in any society, group, organization or family as long as this group of people agrees that it means more than just the object depicted.  The military is obviously no stranger to symbols. The Department of Defense even has The Institute of Heraldry, which is a centralized authority to register, record and regulate the design and use of federal and military symbols. All military badges, ribbons, patches and flags must be approved by this office.  The Air Force even has an Air Force Instruction (AFI 84-105 Organizational Lineage, Honors and Heraldry) which governs Air Force heraldry. The expressed purpose is to promote esprit de corps, morale and a sense of heritage for the unit.

The 628th Aerospace Medicine Squadron patch was approved this past summer. It was a long and arduous process as it was quite apparent that every draft design ran afoul of at least one of the AFI's Heraldic Standards. The most difficult standard to overcome was the requirement to keep the emblem design "uncluttered" for which there is no strict definition, only a subjective assessment by the approval authority.  One thing the AFI neglects to tell you is that you must attach meaning to each color and object. And, oh by the way, you must include the two Air Force colors (ultramarine blue & Air Force yellow).

The whole process got me thinking about our nation's flag and how they came up with the colors and symbols. It turns out that the colors of our nation's flag were not assigned specific meanings when they were adopted in 1777.  I, like many others, had come to believe that red represents the blood spilled by those who died in defense of our great nation.

The first time that the colors were imbued with meaning was in the creation of the Great Seal of the United States.  In 1782, Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, stated: "The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; white signifies purity and innocence, red, hardiness & valour, and blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice." 

More than 200 years later, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed 1986 as the Year of the Flag. "The colors of our flag signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish: red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice."

So while I may have been wrong on the meaning of the colors of our nation's flag, I probably wasn't too far off.  But it did lead me to wonder, "Could the meaning of these colors be described as our nation's core values?"

The Air Force has adopted Integrity, Service, and Excellence as core values.  Could our nation's core values be described as Courage, Purity, and Justice and be embodied by the colors of our flag?  I would like to think that we, as a nation, would strive to live up to those values.  Ultimately, to be effective, it needs to be a shared symbol.  I hope that in 2015, that we, as a people, can share the colors of the flag:  Courage, Purity, and Justice.